July 02, 2005

The elephant fights back

A few weeks ago, I posted a few comments about Derek Bickerton's new theory that our ancestors developed language so they could cut up dead elephants better. In more dignified and scientific terms, he suggests that language emerged because of the need to recruit and coordinate crews to scavenge the carcasses of naturally-deceased megafauna. Yesterday, Derek posted a reply, in which he starts off with a wink

Thanks, Mark, for spreading the word, even if I don't altogether agree with your conclusions. Maybe you're the reason my site visits doubled last month. So if I say anything personal--it's not personal! Get it?

and then throws a few hard shots behind a snappy jab:

Of course you can compare apples and oranges (or, perhaps more relevant here, shit and Shinola) and come to the conclusion that they're both round, or both brown, so hey, what's the difference, let's move on. Sure saves thinking too hard.

Since it's time for me to head out to today's EMELD sessions, I'll have to get through this round with a rope-a-dope strategy. But just wait till I'm back in Philly!

More importantly, Derek also posted a preprint entitled "Language Evolution: a Brief Guide for Linguists", a version of a paper that will appear in Journal of Linguistics at some point in the future. It's full of interesting ideas, and fun to read. For example:

Into the middle of this confused and confusing situation there appeared in the journal Science a paper (Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch 2002) aimed at setting the scientific community straight with regard to language evolution. Its magisterial tone was surprising, considering how little work any of its authors had previously produced in the field, but no more surprising than the collaborators themselves: since Hauser was known as a strong continuist and Chomsky as a strong discontinuist, it was almost as if Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat had coauthored a position paper on the Middle East.

I think you can tell that this isn't a balanced and dispassionate survey, but a strong presentation of an interesting individual perspective. More on it later.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 2, 2005 07:35 AM